At the end of the movie, Return of the Jedi, Luke Skywalker walks among a celebration. There’s music, dancing, and cute little Ewoks running around. That’s when he turns to see not only the smiling ghosts of his mentors, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda, but that they’re also accompanied by his father, Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader. Luke smiles at the delightful sight.
And I hated it. I saw no justice in the fact that the evil Vader, the monster responsible for destroying whole planets, had somehow earned the right to spend eternity in Jedi Heaven with the good guys.
I had an allergic reaction to the scene.
Allergic reactions come in all sizes. Some are small, like when we deal with annoyances. Others can be large, like when a conversation turns to politics or religion. Perhaps you’re even having an allergic reaction to what I’ve just written because you see the movie’s ending as one of redemption and hope instead of schmaltzy.
Allergic reactions present problems for storytellers because they inhibit the transfer of meaning. At a minimum, they distract. At a maximum, they eliminate any wiggle room for dialog–whether that be internal or external.
Story allergens, the things that initiate allergic reactions, can be used as a storytelling tool to unlock inner human forces. When used for good, these forces can move nations, such as with Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” or President Kennedy’s “Let’s put a Man on the Moon” speeches. When placed into the hands of the otherwise motivated, however, story allergens can also be used to manipulate a young man with a loving family to strap a bomb to his chest and step into a crowded bus.
Storytellers must consider two types of story allergens: unintentional and intentional.
Unintentional allergens occur when a story evokes a strong response accidentally–like triggering my revulsion to Jedi Heaven. In all likelihood, George Lucas knew about it, weighed the benefits and the risks, and ultimately chose to keep it. That’s the most refreshing part of being a storyteller–we are in control of our writing.
The intentional use of story allergens, on the other hand, is risky and therefore must be approached with extreme caution. I try to avoid using them because they require so much care and attention. Yet, they do have their places. If your message has the potential to change the world, story allergens can unleash the energies needed to support your cause. But beware. Allergic reactions typically come in equal but opposite pairs. The same power to motivate can be used to oppose it.
What are the allergens in your industry? Are they being used? If so, intentionally or unintentionally?
Photo Credit: NATIONAL VACCINE & ANTITOXIN INST. , None. [Between 1905 and 1945] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/hec2009004751/